Gov. Mark Dayton (a former teacher) has made universal preschool for 4-year-olds a very high priority for funding for this legislative session and special session. I'm impressed by the coverage the topic has gotten, though I think there is a need for a great deal more discussion and enlightenment.

An experience I had last week is an example. I was in a clinic waiting room when I heard an elderly couple raise the question of why preschool education was such a divisive issue at the Legislature. They seemed puzzled about it. As the discussion expanded, the husband suggested that preschool was just a way to get public day care for children. Others joined in and said it is much more than that — that preschool is reading, the alphabet, good nutrition and a lot more. Pretty soon everybody engaged in the discussion. They pointed out that today most parents need to work and that mothers can't stay home with children like they used to. And that day care is expensive. Many parents are single mothers, work two jobs to put bread on the table and they can't afford special programs or preschool for their children.

I entered the discussion. I told the gentleman that I have two granddaughters in Paris (ages 4 and 5) who started at a neighborhood school at age 3, when children in France become eligible for public preschool. It is not required, but most parents take advantage of it. I have visited the school my granddaughters attend several times.

I'm impressed by how these girls have grown there — in reading, alphabet, numbers, social skills and self-esteem. The nutrition is great, too. Besides, my son says, it saves about $22,000 per year in day-care costs.

Still, this delightful waiting-room discussion revealed that there is a real vacuum in awareness of how important good early (preschool) education is to give every child a good chance in the 21st century. We have a lot of educating to do.

Art Rolnick, formerly of the Minneapolis Fed, and Prof. Arthur Reynolds at the University of Minnesota have done great research work to indicate how important early education is in closing the deplorable achievement gap in our schools. And of how high the return is ($7 for every dollar invested). Any first- or second-grade teacher will tell you what a difference they see in their students when children have had good preschool programs or other special programs.

If we want to be the Education State again, preschool (universal or scholarship) needs our attention. We have a great higher-education system in Minnesota that has served us well, spawning great jobs and leading industries. But we were late to universal kindergarten as a state. Let's not be late to embrace the importance of preschool for all of our children.

At the end of our discussion in the waiting room, the gentleman who had raised the question about preschool said: "You know, it really is a different day and age today from when we grew up and raised our children. We need to do things different today."

His wife, sitting beside him, smiled approvingly at his change of heart.

Myron Just, of St. Paul, is a retired farmer.